Armenia, considered to be one of the oldest civilizations in the world, is a small, landlocked, mountainous, country located between the Black and Caspian seas in the South Caucasus region of Eurasia. It is bordered on the north by Georgia, on the west and southwest by Turkey, on the south by Iran, and on the east by Azerbaijan. The Armenian language is Indo-European and has 38 letters in the alphabet. It was invented in the 5th century A.D. by Archimandrite Mesrop Mashdots. There are two main dialects, Eastern and Western Armenian. In 301 A.D., Armenia became the first Christian nation, though there were believers in Christianity before then. Throughout its long history, the country has been invaded by Arabs, Byzantines, Mongols, Persians, Romans and Turks, and ruled by various empires. After its conversion to Christianity, during lengthy periods of Muslim domination, the country never converted to Islam. Throughout the centuries, despite their constant struggles with invasions and domination, the people remained steadfast in their religious beliefs, creative, industrious and true to their heritage. Family and education were, and still are, paramount to them.
Armenians were initially nature worshipers. They worshiped eagles, lions, the sun and heaven. They called themselves Arevortik (Children of the Sun). The sun-god was called Ar (Arev, meaning sun in Armenian). Later, nature worship was replaced with national gods, among them Vanatur, the supreme god of the Armenian pantheon; Nar, the goddess of fertility; Nane, the goddess of motherhood, wisdom and family protection (Nane’s influence is still a part of Armenian traditions, for the people usually call their grandmothers Nane, Nani or Nan); Tir, the god of writing and science, which shows that Armenia had a written language before their Christian alphabet was invented in the 5th century (“a type of hieroglyphics called Mehenagir [Pagan Temple Script]”); Tsovinar, goddess of the sea; followed by Zoroastrianism and Mithraism, and finally Christianity, which inspired a flood of literary works, art, architecture, (though some features of pre-Christian architecture can be found, such as the ancient monastery of Geghard), and an assortment of other works in various fields. “Art historians have always singled out Armenian architecture for its uniqueness.” Prior to the invention of the alphabet, folk tales, songs and epics were passed down orally from generation to generation. Minstrels traveling from village to village in a sense were teachers, as they sang and recited to their audiences both young and old. The audience memorized the words the minstrels sang or recited. The Armenian national epic, a story created during pagan times, has survived the generations. It is called Sassna Tsrer (Daredevils of Sassoun). It is the story of the courageous Mher (Mithra) who was referred to as “Lion Mher” and his brother, “Little Mher.”
Zoroastrianism in Armenia dates back to the 5th century B.C. during the Achaemenian and Parthian periods and was divided between Persia and the Roman Empire. Until Armenia’s conversion to Christianity, it was predominantly Zoroastrian. The Armenian pagan triad was Aramazd, (Ahura Mazda [Mazdaism—sun-worship—existed for centuries in Armenia and the god’s chief temple was in northern Armenia, and another on the plain of Ararat]), Anahit (Anahita), and Vahagn (the dragon reaper, sun-god, god of courage and god of war).
Some of the gods the Armenians believed in during Zoroastrian Armenia were a mixture of both local gods and goddesses, while others were adopted from nearby areas. They were: Mher (Mithra), Aramazd, Anahit (whose temple statue was destroyed by Roman soldiers, but her bronze head survived and is now in the British Museum), Astghik, Nane, Tsovinar, Tir, Vahagn, Vanatur, who was eventually replaced with Aramazd.
Garni Temple was built in 77 A.D. and dedicated to Mithra. It has “nine steps leading to the main entrance, which displayed a statue of Mithra, but was destroyed by invaders. It has 24 columns representing the hours of the day, with six in front and back and eight on the sides, which is ‘the symbol of life.’” Mithraism played a major role in Armenian religion. The temple of Mithra was called Mrhakan Mehean, the Armenian word for temple is mehean, and the priests were known as mitereank. In the Van area of Western Armenia, now Turkey, there are two temples dedicated to Mithra. The temples are carved out of caves and are located near each other.
Garni Temple “survived the destruction of numerous pagan temples following countless invasions, the Armenian conversion to Christianity, and earthquakes, until its collapse in the catastrophic earthquake of 1679 A.D. The temple was left in ruins for hundreds of years.” In the late 19th century archaeologists began to explore the site. The fallen stones were protected between 1909 and 1911 in the hopes that one day the temple would be reconstructed. The temple was reconstructed between 1969 and 1975. Today, Garni Temple is the only standing Greco-Roman structure in Armenia and considered as a “symbol of Armenia’s classical past as well as its deep historical ties to the civilizations of Greece and Rome.” In ancient and medieval times, the areas surrounding the temple were utilized as a royal garrison and military fortress. “In the city of Artashat, southeast of the capital, Yerevan, Mithraic temple ruins, built from black marble, have been unearthed.”
Although the Armenian nation is Christian, the influences of Zoroastrian and Mithraic beliefs still exist. For example, for Armenians February 14 is linked to sun and fire which were worshiped during pagan times. After the country’s conversion to Christianity, it became a religious holiday known as Diarentarach (“Presentation of our Lord [Jesus Christ] to the Temple,” following the 40 days after his birth on Armenian Christmas, January 6). After church service, the congregation goes out to the yard to a bonfire that has been lit with a candle from the church. After singing hymns, newlyweds, young couples, followed by all those who wish to, jump over the flames after the flames have grown low. This ancient tradition symbolizes purification, good fortune, and for young couples also fertility. Another pagan holiday, celebrated in July, is Vardavar or the “Feast of Water” (Transfiguration), where all day long, people sprinkle or splash water on one other. There is much laughter and joy on this day, especially for children. The Armenian Apostolic Church preserved and incorporated such traditions and rituals into the Church because of their popularity.
Two other pagan traditions that are also still very popular are the tying of strips of cloth on a bush or tree, especially near a church, in the hopes that God will see or hear their wishes. Another is the zoh or matagh (sacrifice) of an animal, especially sheep or chicken. It is an offering to God for answering one’s prayers, whether it is a cure from an illness, the coming home of a long-lost relative, a special event, such as a visit by a revered or honored person, or a memorial service for the deceased. In the Armenian Church, after the death of a loved one, especially after the 40 days, a matagh or sacrifice is offered to the congregation and anyone else wishing to partake in the after-church meal, which is a tasty porridge made with bulgur (cracked wheat) mixed with either meat or chicken. Also in the Armenian Church, the Badarak (Holy Mass) is said only in Grabar (Classical Armenian)—ancient words that have remained unchanged, just as the people’s religious beliefs have remained firm, for the Armenian Church is not only a place of worship, but a place steeped in history.
The following are a few examples of what the names of the months were called when the old Armenian calendar was in use: the first month, Navasard, New Year (August 11), honored the beloved goddess, Anahit; the seventh month, Mehakan, Festival of Mithra; the eighth month, Areg, Sun month; the ninth month, Ahekan, Fire Festival. In the 18th century, when the Armenian calendar was reformed, January 1 was recognized as the New Year. Also, in the old Armenian calendar, the days of the month were given names of old gods, heroes or natural objects. Some examples are: Day 1, Areg, Sun; Day 2, Hrand, Earth mixed with Fire; Day 8, Mher, (Mithra); Day 15, Aramazd, (Ahura Mazda); Day 19, Ahahit, (Anahita); Day 24, Lusnak, Half Moon; Day 27, Vahagn, (Zoroastrian Vahram); Day 30, Gisherarev, Evening Star.
Patriarch Nerses Shnorhali (Nerses the Gracious), who was the Catholicos of Armenia in the 12th century, was very much aware of the peoples’ continued pagan beliefs and rituals. Inspired “after hearing guards singing heathen songs to the rising sun at the Catholicosate” where he resided, he composed a most hauntingly “beautiful hymn for the Armenian Church titled Luys, Ararich Lusoh (Light, Maker of Light).”
During Zoroastrian/pagan Armenia, light and fire were sacred, and in the temples, the altar was called “bagin or place of the god,” the fire altar was called “atrusan,” the priests were called “K’urms,” and their robes “patmujan.” Worshippers placed a dot of ash from the altar on their foreheads after worship. The remains of a fire altar lie beneath the main altar of Holy Etchmiadzin, the Mother See of the Armenian Apostolic Church. After the country’s conversion to Christianity, the sons of the K’urms were taken and trained as priests.
Up until 1920, there were yet believers in Zoroastrianism in Armenia. Today, there is a small group of neo-pagan Armenians living in the country who worship at Garni Temple and perform pagan wedding ceremonies there. On December 22, they gather at the temple to celebrate Mher’s (Mithra’s) birthday.
At the wedding of a young couple at Garni Temple, the pagan priest, wearing a robe, begins the ceremony with the words: “Oh Mother Anahit, Mother of all mothers…” He then says to the couple, “May the breath of your ancestors be in you… and your feet firmly on this ground…,” as he briefly holds a short knife (images of Mithra were often depicted with such a knife) in the flames of the cauldron that stands before him and the couple. The pagan priest then slowly removes the knife, and gently touches the top of the bride’s head, then the groom’s, as he blesses them with the words: “Anahit, with your mother’s love, I bless these rings… May the rings shimmer always on their fingers… Praise to you, Mother Anahit!” After wine is poured from a red clay jug into red clay cups and offered to the couple, the priest, and the wedding party, the priest then instructs the couple to each reach into a basket filled with pieces of wood and place their selected piece of wood into the flaming cauldron. They are then congratulated and wished a happy and bountiful life.
Hints of pagan or pre-Christian Armenia are still evident today, especially in the form of a specific and ancient figure called the Eternity Symbol, known also as Arevakhach (Sun-cross). It can be seen on buildings, especially churches, on very old tombstones, memorials, various coats of arms, logos, clothing, jewelry, medals, carpet designs, artwork and in print. Just as some of the pagan holidays and traditions continue to be a part of the country’s religious and secular holidays, the Arevakhach continues to be a significant symbol that is often carved with the Khachkar (Cross-stone, “the oldest khachkar was carved in 879, though earlier, cruder, examples exist”) resting on top of it. Perhaps the blending of the ancient with the new, the past with the present, whether they are religious beliefs and practices or words of wisdom that have survived through the ages, the adaptation to changing situations and times, yet never forgetting who they are, have been key to Armenia’s survival throughout the centuries, thus making them “one of the most ancient hearths of human culture.”
Editor’s Note: The initially published version of this article described Mesrob Mashdots as patriarch, instead of Archimandrite. The article had also noted the Armenian alphabet containing 39 letters, instead of 38.